Easter Sunday is associated with resurrection and Bristol are in need of divine intervention if they are to dodge an immediate return to the Championship. Having been within three minutes of beating last season’s beaten finalists, Exeter, a week ago, they on Sunday face the Premiership leaders, Wasps, at Ashton Gate with matches running out.
After Bristol were relegated in 2009, they spent seven years in the rugby wilderness. The money went, then the players, and when they assembled a competitive squad they were tripped up by the Championship’s play-off system. Should they go down again, however, their return is likely to be far quicker, with the club financially stable and underpinned by a strong infrastructure.
Bristol’s owner, Steve Lansdown, will continue to back the club, a number of high-profile signings will arrive in the summer, including the New Zealand back-rower Steven Luatua and the Ireland fly-half Ian Madigan, a new training base near Clifton Suspension Bridge will be ready in two years, Pat Lam is taking over as head coach and the Championship will next season revert to first past the post.
“We will fight to the very end this season and will not give up,” says the Bristol head coach, Mark Tainton, who took over in November after Andy Robinson was sacked. “The players showed their spirit at Exeter when they made 315 tackles and deserved victory. To play like that at one of the hardest places to go in the Premiership said something and we need to reproduce that spirit against Wasps, although they will look to go around, rather than through, us.”
Tainton could have been plotting Bristol’s downfall had he accepted an offer from Wasps, where he spent last season as an attack and kicking consultant, to stay at the club but the lure of Bristol, where he spent his playing career as a fly-half and is still the club’s record points scorer, was too strong. He returned, having spent 10 years in Ireland after starting his coaching career with Jack Rowell’s England in Argentina in 1997, as a consultant only to find himself in charge within a few months after the opening seven league matches resulted in defeat.
“We knew the Premiership would be a massive challenge,” says Tainton. “We were not always matching the intensity and pace other teams had and we had a lot of catching up to do. When I took over as head coach we reduced the minutes on the training field but upped the pace and intensity. We were in a difficult position and things were not going well for Andy. It was not that he was doing anything wrong and he is a very good coach with a strong track record I have massive respect for, but sometimes, and there is no rhyme or reason for it, the same group of players produce something completely different under a fresh voice.
“I told the players I wanted them to enjoy themselves, express themselves and play with no fear. To a degree, they have done that and we got some results over Christmas. Steve Lansdown and I speak regularly: the board have been massively supportive to me in challenging times and the supporters have been fantastic. They deserve an effort from the side every week. Our aim is to go into the final match of the season at home to Newcastle with a mathematical chance of staying up but, with a trip to Saracens following Wasps, we know how much that is going to take.”
When Lam arrives from Connacht in the summer, Tainton will take off his tracksuit to become Bristol’s chief operating officer, a buffer between the coaches and the board who will be in charge of recruitment and the academy. “I will run the rugby side of the business,” he said. “Steve is in it for the long haul and he has been tremendous for sport in Bristol. If the worst happens and we are in the Championship next season, it would be a setback because we have one of the best stadiums in the country and want to be in the Premiership, but we have recruited strongly for next season and all the new signings will be coming whichever division we are in.”
If relegation in 2009 proved a calamity, this time it should be no more than a blip. Asked where he sees Bristol in five years’ time, Tainton replies: “I would love us to be in the top half of the Premiership and challenging in Europe. The infrastructure put in place by Steve and the board is second to none and we want to be in the top flight. The new coaching team will develop the playing side so we become stronger and, if we were to be relegated, a good start in the Championship would make recruitment easier, with no play-offs to negotiate. Recruitment was difficult last year because by the time we knew we were going up, most players had been signed up.
“But it is not over for us this season and we must continue to believe that anything can happen. The fat lady is a few steps up but she is not on the stage yet.”